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New Study Finds Little Evidence of Bias in National Science Funding

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University of Arkansas researchers have found limited evidence of racial or gender bias in the National Institutes of Health’s grant process. These researchers have investigated the institution’s process of awarding grant funding in a new study.

According to a UA press release, the National Institutes of Health is the “world’s largest public funder of biomedical research [and]…one of the most important ways science is funded.” The researchers were investigating if there is any bias in the application process, particularly against non-white and female applicants.

“The funding process is really high stakes,” said Patrick Forscher, an assistant professor in the U of A Department of Psychological Sciences and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour. “That’s how funding gets done. But it’s also an issue of efficiency. Even if you don’t care about bias, you ought to care whether the public resources of the NIH are being used efficiently.”

To begin the study, Forscher and other researchers assembled 48 NIH grant proposals. Of these 48 proposals, half were funded by the NIH and half were not. The researchers then recruited 412 non-NIH scientists to review the proposals, which they were told were modified versions of the proposals. The NIH, according to the press release, did not participate in the study.

Before the scientists reviewed the proposals, the researchers assigned preselected, fictitious names to each of the proposals. Each of the names was selected to “suggest that the principal investigator for each study was either a white male, white female, black male or black female.”

The researchers found that there was “little to no difference” in the scientists’ assessments of the proposals based on the names attached to them. “We could also say that any bias that was present was quite small,” Forscher said.

According to Forscher, previous research into possible funding bias has focused on results, looking at which researchers were ultimately funded. Testing for bias in the early stages of the process was more difficult.

“We tried to do the hard thing and change the applications. Keeping the content the same and changing the names, you could say pretty conclusively that there was or wasn’t bias.”

Although the study doesn’t entirely rule out bias beyond the initial review of grant applications and also doesn’t address other issues in the review process, the results were heartening, Forscher said.

“There are a lot of things we could improve about the review process, but one of the conclusions you can draw from this study is that social bias on the basis of race and gender probably is not one of them, and I think that is good news.”

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